Music has found its way into the hearts of folks from Sand Mountain as far back as one may recall, and the love for gospel music, especially, has been cherished and passed from one generation to the next, either through the beautifully written lyrical hymns of the church or from a grandmamma singing “Jesus Loves Me” to her grandbabies. Jeff Hawes, English Instructor at Northeast Alabama Community College, commented, “It was once said to me, a former Southern gospel singer, that one can’t possibly be from Sand Mountain and not be a singer. In fact, Russ Deerman, Dutton native and former member of the Regents Quartet, recalls Hovie Lister, singer for the Statesmen and one of the most revered gospel singers of all time, saying, ‘Every good quartet must have an Alabama singer.’ In fact, when I traveled from 2010-2015 with Grammy Award nominee and Gospel Music Association Dove Award winner, Karen Peck and New River, countless musicians from Nashville, Atlanta, and beyond knew exactly where I was born and raised when I would timidly reply, ‘Sand Mountain.’ I soon realized I had nothing of which to be ashamed for my musical background but instead everything of which to be thankful. Some of the greatest, most cherished and awarded voices in Southern gospel music have come from or have roots on Sand Mountain.”
The genre of gospel music certainly encompasses a variety of different styles such as urban contemporary, gospel blues, modern praise and worship, and probably most known to Sand Mountain, Southern gospel, a style which spread across the mountain in the early 1900s. Powell native and former NACC Advisory Board Member, Marlon Pendergrass, defines Southern gospel as “an art form with roots in the deep South, spreading throughout the world by presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ with a southern flavor, with strong ties to country, bluegrass, and the traditional hymns of the Christian faith.” Early Southern gospel quartets were primarily composed of male singers with the harmonious lead, baritone, tenor, and bass accompanied by a male pianist. Perhaps, though, it is Bill Gaither, writer of such classics as “He Touched Me” and “Because He Lives,” who popularized southern gospel to recent fans with his Gaither Homecoming videos which began in the early 90s. Gaither’s ability to preserve the heritage of Southern gospel while also introducing fans to more progressive gospel groups such as The Martins and Karen Peck and New River, has been astounding. Kristie Poe, Sylvania native and sister of NACC Foundation Development Director Heather Rice, remembers fond memories of Sunday night singings on Sand Mountain. Poe said, “I feel very blessed to have grown up with Southern gospel music; to me, there is no other music like it. To sit in a church on singing night was one of my favorite things to do.”
The tradition of gospel music in our area has had a national impact in many ways beyond performers. J. R. Baxter for example, was an owner and publisher of the Stamps-Baxter Music and Printing Company which was one of the leading publishers of gospel songs and consequently spread the music’s popularity. Baxter was from DeKalb County and raised on the tradition of southern gospel music. Members of nationally popular country groups as Alabama and the Louvin Brothers were raised hearing and singing southern gospel and influenced by it. A distinct characteristic of both these groups is harmony singing, which is very much a part of southern gospel. With the popularity of the Louvin Brothers and Alabama, the influence of Sand Mountain Southern gospel has been spread far and wide.
In the 50s and 60s when most Southern gospel groups were dominated by men, little did the industry realize that a lady from the heart of Sand Mountain in Fyffe, Alabama, Vestal Freeman Goodman, would make her own mark in Southern gospel music by being one of the first women in gospel music to be awarded a Grammy. Her family group went on to be awarded the first Grammy award for a gospel album. In fact, Alabama Highway 75 South through Fyffe, Alabama, is known as Vestal Goodman Highway. Some of the Happy Goodman’s most famous songs were “Who Am I,” “I Wouldn’t Trade Nothing for my Journey Now,” and “God Walks the Dark Hills.” Vestal Goodman’s brother, Cat Freeman, sang with the Statesmen, the All Star Quartet, and with the esteemed Blackwood Brothers. The Blackwood Brothers went on to win the first Grammy award presented to a gospel artist for their performance with Porter Wagoner.
During the 60s and 70s, Southern gospel remained alive and well on the mountain as The Regents, a Southern gospel group from Huntsville, Alabama, played a major role establishing the Sand Mountain Gospel Festival at Taco-Bet in Dutton, Alabama, in 1968. The group later moved the event to Section High School in 1970. The Regents along with others such as Marlon Pendergrass also periodically held gospel singings at Northeast in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During the 90s, to help do his part in preserving the Southern gospel music tradition, Pendergrass, founding member of the Premiers Quartet, established the Cat Freeman Memorial Fund. The mission statement of the quartet and the fund were synonymous: Dedicated to the preservation of our southern gospel music heritage. Scholarships were primarily funded through proceeds from the June Gospel Jubilee, an annual concert event held in conjunction with the June Jam country music festival, hosted by legendary country music artist, Alabama. The scholarship fund helped dozens, if not hundreds, of young aspiring artists to attend schools of gospel music. Some of these artists include The Hayes Family of the world-famous Hymn Sing Tour; Melody Jones, Pianist for Metro Church of God in Birmingham; The Browns of Century Theatre in Iowa, and even NACC’s Jeff Hawes. Pendergrass, now serves as vice president of The Groves of Peace River, Inc. A portion of the Cat Freeman Memorial Scholarship Fund is being moved to Northeast Alabama Community College. The fund will continue to assist students interested in carrying on the tradition of southern gospel music through their studies at NACC.
The next generation of gospel singers, whether southern or convention-style singers is alive and well. Snead State Community College conducts a school for gospel music during the summer months. The school recently welcomed its thirty-third group of students with 135 in attendance from eleven states and as far away as Romania.
It is without doubt that Sand Mountain has influenced gospel music for decades and will continue to do so for years to come. As a young man from Flat Rock, Alabama, Hawes had the opportunity to leave the teaching profession and travel with Gaither Homecoming favorite, Karen Peck and New River, from 2010-2015 before returning to Sand Mountain to teach at Northeast Alabama Community College. With progressive groups like The Martins, Southern gospel will continue to inspire a new generation of Southern gospel fans on Sand Mountain.
NACC President Dr. David Campbell stated, “Gospel music, particularly Southern Gospel, is very much a part of the heritage of our area. We are pleased to honor this heritage with The Martin’s in concert.” For more information about The Martins, go to https://www.martinsonline.com/
Music on the Mountain will be Friday, August 2, at 6 pm in the Tom Bevill Lyceum on the campus of Northeast Alabama Community College. Tickets are $15. For tickets go to www.musiconthemountainnacc.com or contact Chasley Bellomy, Event Planner at NACC, at 256-638-4418 or 256-228-6001, ext. 2248. Email her at email@example.com.
For more information about NACC, go to www.nacc.edu or download our free App from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Follow NACC on social media.
Article by Jeff Hawes. References include: www.alabamagospel.com www.fasola.org www.grammy.com
Hawes acknowledged special thanks to contributors: Russ Deerman, Dr. Bobbie Glasco, Rodney Ivey, and Marlon Pendergrass.